It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
Wait . . . haven’t we heard that before? As a matter of fact, yes, we have. Two weeks ago we heard from the little apocalypse of Mark and what the end of the world would look like. And, with all due respect to Miller, Camping, Jenkins, LaHaye, Lindsey and others, the end of the world won’t look anything like they depict.
Today’s passage from Luke, like that from Mark two weeks ago, is concerned with eschatology; or, in non-seminary language, end times, last days and the like. This passage has Jesus talking about those last days. Signs will be in the sun, moon and stars. Nations will be confused. People will faint. The Son of Man will come in a cloud. Jesus paints a frightening image of the last days.
But then he pauses and tells a parable. After stating the signs and times that are to come in the end, he says, “Look at the fig tree; as soon as it sprouts leaves, you know summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
I want to refer back to our recent adult ed class. We were talking about our embedded beliefs with the goal of identifying what we believed “just because” versus that of developing a faith of our own. I began most classes by asking, “What’s 47+10?” The answer, of course, is 43. One plus one is zero, and, as my wife pointed out, 25+10 =1. These are all statements that are true in a certain context and challenge your idea of what is.
An embedded theology or faith can, on the one hand, give us a foundation from which to work. But if we don’t ever examine our embedded faith, or challenge it, then it has the danger of becoming stagnate, unchanged since time immemorial. And a stagnate faith is a faith that is either dying or already dead.
So let’s challenge our embedded faith a bit. Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus is giving us a picture of the eschaton, the last days.
And then he interjects a parable. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
What things is Jesus talking about? Would you say that those things are the sun, moon, stars and distress? Would you say that they are something else?
In our language we have ways to compare things, or ways to simplify things or to make analogies to get our point across. I imagine we’ve all had times where we’ve tried to explain something unsuccessfully and finally said, “Okay, it’s like this . . .” By doing that, we hope to show how the new example applies to the first and more complicated scenario.
This is what’s going on today. We’ve got sun, moon and stars, distress among nations and people fainting. Okay . . . it’s like this: when a tree sprouts leaves, summer is near. So also, when you see these signs, the kingdom of God is near. Or is it?
I’m willing to bet that embedded theology says that Jesus is referring back to the sun, moon, stars and fainting people when he says, “So also, when you see these things taking place . . .” If you haven’t thought about this, or if that’s how you read this, I want to challenge those embedded thoughts.
Jesus, in several places, refers to the kingdom of God as being near you, or among you. The kingdom of God is not some far off pie in the sky by and by, but is present here and now. It’s present when we care for the poor and lowly. It’s present when we feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. It’s present when we welcome the Other, outsider and outcast into our midst. But the reality is that we still have a long way to go before that happens regularly.
The kingdom of God is near us and among us. The kingdom of God is a future event that has yet to be realized. It’s already and not yet.
This is Advent, already and not yet. We live in the knowledge that Christ is present in our lives – the already – while spending the next four weeks preparing for his birth – the not yet. Advent is the liturgical eschaton – the liturgical last days. It is a time of Christ among us, and a time of Christ yet to come.
So, back to the parable. When you see the trees sprout leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things – trees sprouting leaves – you know that the kingdom of God is near. Therefore, be on guard and be alert, because if we look for the coming of the kingdom of God in the sun, moon, stars and fainting people, we will miss the fact that it is as present as trees sprouting leaves in the spring.
That, I think, is the most important message of Advent: yes, the kingdom of God is coming and not yet fully realized; but be on guard and alert because the kingdom of God is already near us.